The cure for jet lag might be all in your head. A new study by a team at Washington University in St Louis has shown that activating the brain’s neurons could alleviate the condition that plagues travelers across the world.
As Newsweek notes, when you travel to a different time zone, your body has to adjust its circadian rhythm which leads to jet lag. The National Sleep Association defines the circadian rhythm as the biological clock that controls the times that we feel sleepy and wakeful. When you arrive in a new time zone, your body is still technically running on your previous sleep/wake cycle and needs time to get used to your new environment. So, this results in the symptoms that we closely associate with jet lag, namely fatigue, and disorientation. It can even cause stomach issues.
The Washington University study investigated whether it was possible to reset the circadian rhythm faster so that frequent flyers could avoid that crummy feeling which can last for days after you’ve landed in a new time zone. Their theory was that jet lag could be avoided through the activation of the “grandmother” neurons in the human brain. These neurons control the 20,000 others in the hypothalamus that are collectively called the body’s internal clock
Think of them as being like actual grandmothers who force their grandkids to go to sleep at night and wake up early in the morning.
The grandmother neurons produce a chemical called vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, or VIP. They use VIP to coordinate the rhythms of the other neurons when you touch down in a new time zone.
To test their hypothesis, researchers used mice and secluded them in complete darkness in the daytime and nighttime. This meant that they had no environment clues that would have indicated changes in time. Using a technique called optogenetics, scientists used light to control the grandmother neutrons and stimulate their production of VIP on a regular schedule at first and then on an irregular schedule.
“VIP, we think, is the juice that is capable of shifting the clock faster,” said Erik Herzog, a professor at Washington University, who led the research.
The study was published in the journal, Neuron.
The next step is to conduct the tests on humans to see if their proposed cure for jet lag can actually work for travelers who crisscross time zones on a regular basis. If their research on humans, those first miserable days after a long flight could become a thing of the past.